This ambitious exhibition explored twenty-five years of Latin American architecture from 1955 to 1980 using an impressive range of archival material, much of which had never been on public display before. The choice of start date for the period covered paid homage to the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking 1955 exhibition Latin American Architecture since 1945, curated by architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, which celebrated the explosion of modernist architecture in the region during the previous decade. What is astonishing is that MoMA had not mounted an exhibition on Latin American architecture in the intervening sixty years. Given that span of time, those involved in designing Latin America in Construction had a challenge on their hands. Hitchcock had restricted himself to ten years and to forty-six carefully selected buildings that he believed were distinguished enough to rival the forty-three examples he had chosen for his Built in USA: Post-war Architecture exhibition of the previous year. For the Latin American show he traveled to eleven different countries in the company of Rosalie Thorne McKenna, who took the photographs and created the stereo slides that made up the exhibition. Latin America in Construction, by contrast, involved an extensive team of collaborators from the United States and Latin America under the overall direction of curator Barry Bergdoll. It included original sketches, plans, films, books, pamphlets, letters, photographs, and architectural models as well as specially commissioned new material. The chronological scope of the exhibition was much broader than the title suggests, although given MoMA’s lack of attention to Latin American architecture over the previous sixty years it was not surprising to find an extensive introduction to pre-1955 developments. The examples included many covered by Hitchcock, in particular the new university campuses of Caracas and Mexico City that so impressed foreign observers in the 1950s and that provided a necessary context for later urban developments, particularly Brasília, which was, appropriately, powerfully represented. Among the many items exhibited was Lúcio Costa’s original pilot plan for the city, along with some of the unsuccessful proposals for the new capital and stunning photographs, old and new, of Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic architecture.

The exhibition’s response to the challenge of how to make up for sixty years of silence was nothing if not energetic. Among my favorite items were lively sketches by Luis Barragán for the Satellite Towers in Mexico City, by José Tomás Sanabria of weather patterns around Caracas, and by Lina Bo Bardi for the SESC Pompéia leisure center in São Paulo, dotted with happy people. There were splendid old black-and-white photographs of bold buildings in béton brut, a natural development from the traditional mud walls found in many parts of Latin America; a magnificent watercolor by Juan O’Gorman of the design for the UNAM library mosaic; and a sketch of Miguel Rodrigo Mazuré’s extraordinary project for a futuristic hotel at Machu Picchu in Peru. An introductory wall text claimed that the exhibition would challenge the view that Latin America was following in the footsteps of Europe and the United States. In fact it is probably decades since anyone with an interest in Latin American architecture has held such a view, but the materials on display certainly demonstrated the region’s intellectual and creative independence. The title, Latin America in Construction, as noted in the catalog, was chosen not just to identify the architectural and political ideas behind the exhibition but also to flag it as “an ongoing laboratory for constructing new histories.” Among the examples of such new histories was a section devoted to PREVI, a 1960s housing project in Lima, which included a video from 2013, part of research undertaken by students from Woodbury School of Architecture in San Diego in which long-term residents were interviewed about their experiences of living in the neighborhood. Their commentary offered a provocative contrast between grand architectural (and political) designs and grassroots practicality. More new histories could be constructed from similar research involving users of other major mid-twentieth-century architectural developments. Another ongoing construction site is an online bibliography to which people are encouraged to contribute.

The problem with the idea of histories under construction, however, is that it does not lend itself to a coherent narrative for an exhibition. Perhaps this was the intention: it is true that for many years now there has been much soul-searching about the dangers of the adjectival designation Latin American and the associated tendency toward reductive generalization about the region’s very different countries and cultures. Latin America in Construction did not attempt to generalize, but a visitor without some knowledge of the field might have struggled to find a way through the exhibition: with no clear chronology, no clear boundaries between countries or between building types or functions, and a plethora of material, it was all too easy to get lost. Categories were confused from the outset. In the first room a row of videos, commissioned by MoMA from filmmaker Joey Forsyte, ran simultaneously. Although they were labeled by country, it was unclear whether the videos, which Forsyte created using clips from old newsreels, were meant to provide historical context or were more of a creative response to the exhibition’s theme. If the curators were anxious to avoid homogenizing tendencies, these videos undermined their aim by periodically converging to show one synchronized clip on all seven screens, as if all the countries were being driven simultaneously by the same machine. In another room, display cases lined one long wall with wall-mounted materials above; above these was a time line showing key events across Latin America for the twenty-five years under consideration, and above that was a selection of photographs. The overall chronological sequence implied by the time line was not to be found in the corresponding exhibits, however. In other words, this was an exhibition rich in detail but with no clear theme or argument, no route map. The substantial catalog (weighing more than five pounds) is, by contrast, organized by country, with the focus firmly on the period 1955–80. It makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing construction of new histories of the architecture of the region.

Related Publication

Barry Bergdoll, Carlos Eduardo Comas, Jorge Francisco Liernur, and Patricio del Real, eds., Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015), 320 pp., 238 color and 82 b/w illus. $55, ISBN 9780870709630